Early women flyers were known more for their outlandish costumes than for their flying ability.
The first American woman to earn a pilot’s certificate was the flamboyant Harriet Quimby. In 1909 she piloted her bi-plane wearing her extraordinary flying costume of a purple satin harem suit with hood, pearl necklace, and silk scarves. In 1912 she flewfrom Dover, across the English Channel to Calais, France in just under an hour, in a Bleirot monoplane, being the first womanto do so. Doubting a woman’s ability to fly that far, her consultant, Gustav Hamel, offered to wear her outlandish costume and go for her. But she proved to be very capable of the flight. However, the breaking news got very little notice, as it was the same day the Titanic sank.
She was called the “Dresden China Aviatrix.” She wrote articles on flying for Leslie Weekly, adding that it was feasible that airlines could regularly fly 50 to 60 miles!
Helene Dutrieu, a Belgian, began as a trick bicycle rider. In April 1910 she flew for a whole 20 minutes! Five months later she astounded the world by flying nonstop for 28 miles! Plus she circled a belfry spire and rose to an altitude of 1,300 feet – higher than any woman had flown. They called her “Girl Hawk.” And shockingly she flew without wearing a corset! She said it gave her more freedom and less chance of injury. Her flashy costume was a gray divided skirt, white spats, angora beret and long leather gauntlets. [Slacks were still not acceptable attire for women in 1942 when two women pilots -WASPs - were arrested in the South and put in jail for wearing slacks on the street].
Edith Spencer Kavanaugh of England favored a form-fitting vest and skirt of vivid red! She was known as the “Cardinal in the sky.”
And Blanche Stuart-Scott managed to struggle into 3 petticoats and covered them with heavy bloomers. She got into aviation in 1910 by driving an Overland car from New York to San Francisco, demonstrating for Willys-Overland Company that long distance motoring was so easy even a woman could do it.
Eventually most women decided on loose-knee length golfing trousers, sweaters, high-top boots and a soft fabric helmet and goggles for their flying costumes. Almost sounds like combat gear worn today!
Article by Lyon Air Museum Docent and Author, Nancy Robison